Ichigenme, Vols. 1 and 2

Ichigenme: The First Class Is Civil Law (801 Media) wasn’t the first yaoi work by Fumi Yoshinaga that I read, but it’s my favorite, and it has all of the qualities I use to define what I classify as the best of that category.

It’s about law-school students, and, by that, I don’t mean that it features characters who are identified as law-school students. In some romance stories, regardless of the sexual orientation of the protagonists, their professions are identified as a matter of course. For all careers matter to the narrative, they could just as well be identified as working in weaponized genetics or unicorn husbandry. But Yoshinaga has her characters spend a lot of time in the classroom, and she’s given a lot of thought to the culture of a law school.

Hard-working, average-income Tamiya and lazy, elite Tohdou are in the same seminar. It’s a notoriously easy course, so it’s generally populated with the entitled spawn of politicians, business magnates, and celebrities. They’re the kind of people who are just vamping until their inevitable success, because they know it’s ensured, relatively speaking. Tamiya’s success is equally assured, but that’s because he’s brilliant and he works hard. His classmates view him as a kind of charming oddity, and you can tell he bristles at their condescension as much as their stupidity.

So the series is also about class distinctions, which isn’t unfamiliar territory for Yoshinaga. It was the crux of conflict in Gerard and Jacques (Blu), and caste inequities inform virtually every page of Ôoku: The Inner Chambers (Viz). The injustices of the smug and privileged don’t sour the good times, though, and Yoshinaga doesn’t sermonize. The elites are basically a benign but useless subspecies that’s good for a laugh, though their systemized superiority can certainly be damaging. Class differences in romantic fiction aren’t uncommon, but they can be as cosmetic as careers. Yoshinaga goes deeper, and she earns laughs in the process.

So that’s two things that Ichigenme is actually about aside from a romantic relationship, and they bring me to another good-yaoi differential in evidence: there’s a female character of consequence in the series. Terada is as good a student as Tamiya, and her pedigree is about equal to his. Tereda gives Tamiya a partner in eye-rolling, and she lets Yoshinaga work in some stinging examples of sexist double standards that successful women have to endure. Tereda is a more driven, polished version of Haruka and Tammy in Antique Bakery (Digital Manga), and her scenes have sly, satirical power. That she vanishes after the first volume isn’t really a problem; that’s another pattern of Yoshinaga yaoi, and it’s better than no representation at all of the other 50-plus percent of the population.

It’s starting to sound like Ichigenme is seinen slice-of-life, so I should hasten to mention that the core relationship between Tamiya and Tohdou is urgent and persuasive, and it’s barely formulaic at all. Okay, so Tamiya has never thought of himself as gay, and Tohdou’s attentions surprise him. That’s one of the most common starting points there is. But Tamiya actually goes through an evolution instead of a spontaneous conversion. It takes more than one drunken kiss for Tamiya’s whole life to change, and it’s quite charming to see Tohdou’s combination of patience and determination in wooing his overly serious classmate. (One of his techniques is cooking for Tamiya, another always-welcome feature of Yoshinaga’s manga.)

Even though Tohdou is refreshingly secure in his sexual orientation, he’s got his own insecurities and issues. Tamiya isn’t the only one moving toward maturity and understanding. Yoshinaga is very careful with the emotional progression of both of her protagonists; it’s not a matter of one catching up to the other. And their milestones feel like actual milestones rather than foregone conclusions.

The last distinguishing factor if this title is that it’s very, very sexy. The erotic moments she portrays aren’t pristine; they can be awkward and ridiculous and still erotic at the same time. Yes, Tamiya and Tohdou are very attractive, but they don’t reach the point of magical beings, and their sex scenes have a kind of credibility that make them even more urgent and effective. (This is much more evident in the second volume. Lots and lots of sex in the second volume is another thing you grow accustomed to with Yoshinaga yaoi.)

So, that’s my list of the things I love about Ichigenme. It has credible, mature characters with rounded lives. It takes sexual identity seriously. It’s funny. It’s sexy. It’s pretty much everything I hope for when I pick up yaoi.

(This review is part of the Fumi Yoshinaga Manga Moveable Feast.)